by Dan Peters || AHL On The Beat Archive
When Joe Finley came into training camp this season with the Rochester Americans on a try-out basis, he was simply attempting to earn an American Hockey League contract.
Plagued by injuries in the first two years of his professional career, the 24-year-old Finley had suited up for just eight AHL contests with the Hershey Bears over that span, while also appearing in 43 games in the ECHL.
After playing four years at the University of North Dakota, Finley suffered a forearm injury early in 2009-10 which ended his season, and followed that up with a knee injury last season, prompting him to be out of commission for three months.
Selected in the first round (27th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound blueliner chose to battle it out and earn a contract with the Buffalo Sabres organization rather than go to a different team, where he may have been given a contract immediately.
“It is a great organization from top to bottom,” he said during the final stages of training camp in October.
The Edina, Minn., native did just that, impressing the coaching staff with his imposing size and strength, while also being exceptionally mobile for a man of his stature. The strong showing resulted in an AHL contract, and Finley has since taken steps forward to become a key component of the Amerks defensive corps as a shut-down defenseman, paired with veteran Shaone Morrisonn.
“Joe came in and really impressed a lot of people,” Amerks head coach Ron Rolston said when Finley signed with Rochester. “The way he moves, his size… it’s the first thing you see. Watch him skate and his hands… he has a lot of things there.”
Since being a healthy scratch in the season opener in Hamilton, Finley hasn’t looked back, progressively climbing his way up the organizational depth chart. A rash of injuries to the parent-club Sabres over the past month eventually opened the door for the towering defenseman to sign an NHL contract on Nov. 28, and Finley made his big-league debut against the Detroit Red Wings just three days later.
“I really just took it upon myself to focus on things I can control and that’s trying to play a real simple, solid brand of hockey,” Finley said after joining the Sabres for his first practice. “I’ve been fortunate to have done that so far.”
In his first appearance in a Sabres uniform, Finley saw the ice for 7:51 over 12 shifts. After suiting up the next night in Nashville and playing just under five minutes, he seemed to receive more trust from the coaching staff and played a career-high 10:01 against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 7.
“He is able to skate and make plays, and for a big man that’s always the challenge,” explained Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. “He skates very well, he’s able to handle the puck, and his first pass has been good. When you have that size and that reach, you’ve got an automatic advantage over a lot of players.
“He’s defended really well down there (in Rochester),” added Ruff. “You look at that and if he can continue to progress and stay hungry, you don’t find those types of players. You don’t find them in the draft anymore and it takes a long time to develop them.”
Heading into the Christmas break, Finley has seen action in 23 games for the Amerks so far this season, contributing two points (one goal, one assist) and tying for second on the team with a plus-eight rating. He also sits atop the Rochester lineup in penalty minutes with 69.
Although it has been a bumpy road thus far since joining the professional ranks, Finley is ready to continue taking strides in his career.
“You understand that it’s pro hockey and you are playing to earn a spot,” he said. “I have to continue to stay healthy, do the right things, and trust in guys like Coach Rolston and (assistant coach) Chadd Cassidy. They are doing a great job with me and all the tools that we have in this organization to develop and continue to get better are the best of any place I have ever seen.”